From a hill just outside the Gaza Strip, Israelis watch the air assaults on Gaza and dance in celebration of the attacks, 8 January 2009. (Newscom)
The merciless Israeli bombardment of Gaza has stopped — for now — but the death toll keeps rising as more bodies are pulled from carpet- bombed neighborhoods.
What Israel perpetrated in Gaza, starting at 11:30am on 27 December 2008, will remain forever engraved in history and memory. Tel al-Hawa, Hayy al-Zeitoun, Khuzaa and other sites of Israeli massacres will join a long mournful list that includes Deir Yasin, Qibya, Kufr Qasim, Sabra and Shatila, Qana, and Jenin.
Once again, Israel demonstrated that it possesses the power and the lack of moral restraint necessary to commit atrocities against a population of destitute refugees it has caged and starved.
The dehumanization and demonization of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims has escalated to the point where Israel can with full self- righteousness bomb their homes, places of worship, schools, universities, factories, fishing boats, police stations — in short everything that sustains civilized and orderly life — and claim it is conducting a war against terrorism.
Yet paradoxically, it is Israel as a Zionist state, not Palestine or the Palestinian people, that cannot survive this attempted genocide.
Israel’s “war” was not about rockets — they served the same role in its narrative as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction did as the pretext for the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Israel’s real goals were to restore its “deterrence” fatally damaged after its 2006 defeat in Lebanon (translation: its ability to massacre and terrorize entire populations into submission) and to destroy any Palestinian resistance to total Israeli-Jewish control over historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
With Hamas and other resistance factions removed or fatally weakened, Israel hoped the way would be clear to sign a “peace” deal with chief Palestinian collaborator Mahmoud Abbas to manage Palestinians on Israel’s behalf until they could be forced out once and for all.
The US-backed “moderate” dictatorships and absolute monarchies led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia supported the Israeli plan hoping to demonstrate to their own people that resistance — whether against Israel or their own bankrupt regimes — was futile.
To win, Israel had to break Palestinian resistance. It failed. On the contrary, it galvanized and unified Palestinians like never before. All factions united and fought heroically for 23 days. According to well-informed and credible sources Israel did little harm to the modest but determined military capacity of the resistance. So instead Israel did what it does best: it massacred civilians in the hope that the population would turn against those fighting the occupier.
Israel not only unified the resistance factions in Gaza; its brutality rallied all Palestinians and Arabs.
It is often claimed that Arab regimes whip up anti-Israel anger to distract their populations from their own failings. Actually, Israel, the US and subservient Arab regimes tried everything — especially demonizing Iran and inciting sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims — to distract their populations from Palestine.
All this failed as millions of people across the region marched in support of Palestinian resistance, and the Arab regimes who hoped to benefit from the slaughter in Gaza have been exposed as partners in the Israeli atrocities. In popular esteem, Hamas and other Palestinian resistance factions earned their place alongside Hizballah as effective bulwarks against Israeli and Western colonialism.
If there was ever a moment when the peoples of the region would accept Israel as a Zionist state in their midst, that has passed forever.
But anyone surveying the catastrophe in Gaza — the mass destruction, the death toll of more than 100 Palestinians for every Israeli, the thousands of sadistic injuries — would surely conclude that Palestinians could never overcome Israel and resistance is a delusion at best.
True, in terms of ability to murder and destroy, Israel is unmatched. But Israel’s problem is not, as its propaganda insists, “terrorism” to be defeated by sufficient application of high explosives. Its problem is legitimacy, or rather a profound and irreversible lack of it. Israel simply cannot bomb its way to legitimacy.
Israel was founded as a “Jewish state” through the ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s non-Jewish majority Arab population. It has been maintained in existence only through Western support and constant use of violence to prevent the surviving indigenous population from exercising political rights within the country, or returning from forced exile.
Despite this, today, 50 percent of the people living under Israeli rule in historic Palestine (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip) are Palestinians, not Jews. And their numbers are growing rapidly. Like Nationalists in Northern Ireland or non-whites in South Africa, Palestinians will never recognize the “right” of a settler-colonial society to maintain an ethnocractic state at their expense through violence, repression and racism.
For years, the goal of the so-called peace process was to normalize Israel as a “Jewish state” and gain Palestinians’ blessing for their own dispossession and subjugation. When this failed, Israel tried “disengagement” in Gaza — essentially a ruse to convince the rest of the world that the 1.5 million Palestinians caged in there should no longer be counted as part of the population. They were in Israel’s definition a “hostile entity.”
In his notorious May 2004 interview with The Jerusalem Post, Arnon Soffer, an architect of the 2005 disengagement explained that the approach “doesn’t guarantee ‘peace,’ it guarantees a Jewish- Zionist state with an overwhelming majority of Jews.” Soffer predicted that in the future “when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful.”
He was unambiguous about what Israel would have to do to maintain this status quo: “If we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” Soffer hoped that eventually, Palestinians would give up and leave Gaza altogether.
Through their resistance, steadfastness and sacrifice, Palestinians in Gaza have defeated this policy and reasserted that they are an inseparable part of Palestine, its people, its history and its future.
Israel is not the first settler-colonial entity to find itself in this position. When F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president, came to office in 1989, his generals calculated that solely with the overwhelming military force at their disposal, they could keep the regime in power for at least a decade. The casualties, however, would have run into hundreds of thousands, and South Africa would face ever greater isolation. Confronted with this reality, de Klerk took the decision to begin an orderly dismantling of apartheid.
What choice will Israel make? In the absence of any political and moral legitimacy the only arguments it has left are bullets and bombs. Left to its own devices Israel will certainly keep trying — as it has for sixty years — to massacre Palestinians into submission. Israel’s achievement has been to make South Africa’s apartheid leaders look wise, restrained and humane by comparison.
But what prevented South Africa’s white supremacist government from escalating their own violence to Israeli levels of cruelty and audacity was not that they had greater scruples than the Zionist regime. It was recognition that they alone could not stand against a global anti-apartheid movement that was in solidarity with the internal resistance.
Israel’s “military deterrent” has now been repeatedly discredited as a means to force Palestinians and other Arabs to accept Zionist supremacy as inevitable and permanent. Now, the other pillar of Israeli power — Western support and complicity — is starting to crack. We must do all we can to push it over.
Israel began its massacres with full support from its Western “friends.” Then something amazing happened. Despite the official statements of support, despite the media censorship, despite the slick Israeli hasbara (propaganda) campaign, there was a massive, unprecedented public mobilization in Europe and even in North America expressing outrage and disgust.
Gaza will likely be seen as the turning point when Israeli propaganda lost its power to mystify, silence and intimidate as it has for so long. Even the Nazi Holocaust, long deployed by Zionists to silence Israel’s critics, is becoming a liability; once unimaginable comparisons are now routinely heard. Jewish and Palestinian academics likened Israel’s actions in Gaza to the Nazi massacre in the Warsaw Ghetto. A Vatican cardinal referred to Gaza as a “giant concentration camp.” UK Member of Parliament Gerald Kaufman, once a staunch Zionist, told the House of Commons, “My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow, [Poland]. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed.” Kaufman continued, “my grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.” He denounced the Israeli military spokesperson’s justifications as the words “of a Nazi.”
It wasn’t only such statements, but the enormous demonstrations, the nonviolent direct actions, and the unprecedented expressions of support for boycott, divestment and sanctions from major trade unions in Italy, Canada and New Zealand. An all-party group of city councillors in Birmingham, Europe’s second largest municipal government, urged the UK government to follow suit. Salma Yaqoub of the RESPECT Party explained that “One of the factors that helped bring an end to the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa was international pressure for economic, sporting and cultural boycotts. It is time that Israel started to feel similar pressure from world opinion.”
Israel, its true nature as failed, brutal colonial project laid bare in Gaza, is extremely vulnerable to such a campaign. Little noticed amidst the carnage in Gaza, Israel took another momentous step towards formal apartheid when the Knesset elections committee voted to ban Arab parties from participating in upcoming elections. Zionism, an ideology of racial supremacy, extremism and hate, is a dying project, in retreat and failing to find new recruits. With enough pressure, and relatively quickly, Israelis too would likely produce their own de Klerk ready to negotiate a way out. Every new massacre makes it harder, but a de-zionized, decolonized, reintegrated Palestine affording equal rights to all who live in it, regardless of religion or ethnicity, and return for refugees is not a utopian dream.
It is within reach, in our lifetimes. But it is far from inevitable. We can be sure that Western and Arab governments will continue to support Israeli apartheid and Palestinian collaboration under the guise of the “peace process” unless decisively challenged. Israeli massacres will continue and escalate until the nightmare of an Israeli- style “peace” — apartheid and further ethnic cleansing — is fulfilled.
The mobilizations of the past three weeks showed that a different world is possible and within our grasp if we support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Although they will never get to see it, that world would be a fitting memorial for all of Israel’s victims.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).